Daine and Numair’s world is shaken when the illness strikes; how will things look when the world settles back into place?
For those of you wondering, this piece takes place 3 years post-RotG, and about 1 year after Lingering Ghosts. That makes Daine 19 and Numair 33 by my reckoning. For the purpose of this, and all my other stories, I have said that 451 H.E. is the year of RotG (First Test begins 453 H.E., though that series has no impact on my fiction).
See series Main Page for disclaimers and full warnings.
No sex or violence, but there are mentions of past violent events and depictions of serious and fatal illness.
Spring 451 H.E.
Royal Palace, Corus
A tall, lean mage made his way through the long deserted corridors of the Palace, shoulders slumped slightly with the weariness that showed on his face. His gaze was steady on the floor and his booted feet as he walked, the velvet brown of his eyes lacking their usual glint. There were strands of silver woven through his dark hair, and his swarthy skin was drawn.
All I want is to give Jon the satchel and go to bed , Numair thought on a sigh. A second thought followed without permission: I’m getting too old for this.
Sternly he shook off the unwelcome thought, not noticing the pale young page making his way down the hall. He wasn’t old— anyone would be exhausted from the long journey between Port Legann and Corus, especially if they’d traveled it in almost half the time of a regular trip. And to have done it after only a days rest from the journey to Port Legann—even a young knight would have felt the effects, much less a mage of thirty-three with less-than-stellar equestrian skills.
If Daine finds out I’ve been harboring such thoughts again, she’ll tear a strip from me, he mused, a faint smile touching his lips as he approached the Royal apartments and the king’s study within, absently nodding to the fretful and pale Palace Guards who stood watch at the main doors. That was reason enough to stay young forever, and the thought of the young woman who was likely already in the bed they shared—that he had been absent from for a fortnight—made him hurry his step a little. Next time Jon needs sensitive documents moved quickly and discretely, he can send one of the Own to do it.
So eager was he to relinquish his burden and seek his shared bed that the brilliant mage never noticed the quiet of the Palace, the dark pall hanging over the city he’d ridden through—or the red and black crepe draped over many of the doors he’d passed, outside and within the Palace.
Numair rapped on the king’s study door and walked in at the muffled ‘enter’ that came from within. He didn’t notice the dark circles under the king’s eyes as he carried the messenger’s satchel across the room. He didn’t see Jon press his fingers to his eyes in despair as he caught sight of the black robe mage.
“Here you are, Jon,” he said on a sigh as his sensitive burden was handed to its owner. “The documents are all there, untampered with and sealed by Kaddar’s hand. No one’s laid eyes on the contents since they were sealed, and no one but you, the emperor, and myself are capable of breaking the seals. I will say that the idea of spelling the wax so that only specific people may touch the documents is clever, but next time you need to pass underground slave routes between kingdoms, choose another carrier—I didn’t study half my life earning the black robe to run errands.”
“Sit down, Numair,” Jon began.
He shook his head. “If I sit, I’ll fall asleep and you won’t be able to stir me until noon tomorrow. I’d much rather return to my own bed.”
“Numair, this is important.”
The tired, weary tone drew Numair’s gaze to the king’s face, where it sharpened, exhaustion falling away as he noted the lines of strain, the lack of sleep. “Mithros, Mynoss, and Shakith, haven’t we had enough disaster these last years? What is it this time–war, pestilence, or plague?”
“The Sweating Sickness.”
Numair sat. Hard.
“Great Gods protect us. When? How bad is it?”
“It started in the Lower City. The first case the Healers learned of was a little over a se’night past—but you know what the poor districts are like; the residents there rarely seek outside help or have money for real Healers. By that point, the Sickness had been in the city for nearly a fortnight, incubating, and half the Lower City had been infected without knowing. Before the Healers could even realize what was happening, the Sickness exploded, with cases all over the city. Three days ago the first cases appeared in the Palace; servants and stable hands who had family in the city bought it with them and spread it before symptoms even appeared. It’s in the Palace proper now—and the deaths have already begun amongst the city dwellers.”
Numair tugged his earlobe in thought, his stomach twisting at the news. The Sweating Sickness spread to epidemic proportions far too quickly, as evident now. If deaths had already begun, they would be digging mass graves by the end, as in the last major bout of the illness—the fever that had been brewed by Roger of Conte to kill the Royal family over two decades ago. The sights and feel of the city and Palace finally sank in: black crepe on a door meant death had occurred, but red crepe signaled disease within.
Distracted by the implications of Jon’s news, it took Numair a moment to realize the significance of part of his statement. His head shot up, eyes narrowing on Jon’s. “The stables?” The words were like glass as he forced them from his throat—sharp and painful.
One look at the king’s face, the way he flinched at the question, and Numair knew. “No.”
Jon pressed his fingers against his eyes, a habit of late, to relieve the burning, if only for a moment. A king could not sleep while his people were dying, so his eyes would be burning for some time. When looked back to Numair, he found an ashen face and a disbelieving expression. And hated what he had to say. “She was among the first in the Palace grounds to succumb.”
He saw the mage flinch as if taking a blow to the belly, saw the way his eyes went blank, then dark, as the truth sank in. But Jon wasn’t finished.
“Where is she?” Numair demanded. He heard his own voice, distantly, and was numbly surprised at the tone; he’d never heard that rasping sound from his own mouth before. But while he noted that, his primary attention was on Jon—and the desperate voice in his head demanding he find Daine. Now.
“Where is she?”
The king sighed. “She’s with the Healers; Duke Baird is taking care of her—Numair, please!”
He sat again when Jon begged him, stopping his headlong rush to the door. The king’s tone had him bracing himself. “What else?” The king hesitated, trying his temper. “Damnit, Jon, speak your piece or let me go to her!”
“Numair, the healers learned long ago with the Sweating Sickness that…those in whom the fever burns so high, so quickly…rarely survive.”
The painful knot in his belly tightened even as the voice turned to a scream. Bright Mithros, magelet. He clenched his fist, as if crushing the fear that paralyzed him. Anger flooded in its wake. “She’s not going to die—people survive the fever. You did, and yours was magically brewed.”
Jon’s eyes darkened, his gaze turning inward as he remembered. “There were—extenuating circumstances.”
He knew. Numair had long ago dragged the story of the then-prince’s fever and its cure from Alanna. If anything, he understood what had happened better than the participants.
Numair stood. “Jon, if you think that I won’t call upon the gods— all of them, if necessary—to save her, then you don’t know me half as well as you think.”
When the study door slammed shut in the wake of the furious mage, Jon sighed. “I do understand, and that’s what I’m afraid of; that you’ll kill yourself trying to save her.”
Baird, Duke of Queensgrove, chief healer of Tortall, took a brief moment’s rest in the corridor, leaning wearily against the wall in lieu of the soft bed and two days sleep he needed. He sighed and straightened a moment later when he saw Numair Salmalin striding towards him. He was tired, the kind of exhaustion so deep that it was felt in every bone and joint—and he knew he would be far more so by the end of it. The Sweating Sickness had nowhere near run its course, and before the epidemic was over they would be burying bodies by the hundreds. But somehow, more than moving from one bedside to the next, fevered man to woman to child, one out of every three whom would die, it was having to tell a man that his loved one was, most likely, dying that was the most painful thing he had to do.
“Where is she?”
Under the circumstances, Baird understood the mage’s lack of civilities—could even be thankful to not have to go through the dance of courtesy and etiquette.
“I don’t want to hear it, Baird,” the younger man snarled. “I don’t want to hear about her chances, or that her fever is too high, or anything else. I want to know where she is. ”
Apparently someone had already spoken to the mage and Numair hadn’t been impressed by the warning.
“I’ll take you to her.”
Numair, his swarthy skin pale, nodded stiffly and then fell into step with the duke. As they headed towards the Healer’s Ward, Baird tried again.
“I doubt she’ll recognize you, Numair—she’s completely delirious at this point. We’ve had to spell her asleep several times just to be able to approach her.” The mage said nothing, face pale and set, as he continued. “Her fever started rising within hours of the first symptoms, and she was incoherent by the end of the same day. Numair, there’s a good chance—”
“Don’t! You don’t know her—you can’t say things like that.”
“I don’t want to hear it!”
And as half the lamps in the hall were instantly extinguished at the mage’s words, and black fire crackled around him, the duke relented on a sigh.
He stopped at a red door, marking those within as contagious—though that meant little now, as nearly everyone was—and considered speaking again, warning the younger man, but one look at his face and his barely restrained Gift had him biting his tongue and reaching for the latch. “Stay as long as you like—the risk for you is slim.”
Numair nodded. Even without his Gift which, while not a Healing one that shielded the bearer from many illnesses, was powerful enough to burn most diseases out of him before they could take firm hold, he was at little risk from the Sickness. He was from the same region as the Sickness originated the hot, swampy areas of Tyra and Carthak; the Sickness had dwelled in the South for centuries before spreading along trade routes to the North and East. Those like him, Southerner or even those of southern descent, were resistant to the disease, unlike northern peoples who had only been exposed for a few generations and in whom the illness reached plague proportions.
Duke Baird took one last look at Numair before nudging the door open. “Ring the bell for a Trainee if you need anything,” and left, knowing that privacy was needed far more than words.
The heat struck him like a blow as the door opened. Numair began to sweat immediately, despite standing in the cooler corridor. The shock of it held him fast for a moment while he regained his wits—at which point he entered the room and pulled the door closed behind him, cursing himself for possibly causing a draft that could be harmful to Daine.
The small chamber was dark and stuffy with heat, radiating from the hearth and braziers, the only source of light in the room. Charms and spells brought fresh air into the room, heated before it entered, to stop stagnation without exposing patients to open shutters and the elements. All of this was absorbed absently by Numair as the majority of his attention was focused on the restless figure on the narrow bed. A pained sound slipped unnoticed from the mage’s throat, and he moved towards the bed and his love.
Daine’s slender form was buried in blankets and heated bricks, only her head and one arm, which she had flung free, exposed. Her skin was flushed and damp with sweat, as were her chestnut curls which were plastered to her forehead and neck. Over her restless movements and weak struggles against delirium and the imprisoning covers, he could hear the rasping of her breath as air and fluid rattled in her lungs.
He fought the shock and horror of seeing his strong, stubborn magelet laid so low and so weak. Jon and the duke’s words played in his head, twining with Daine’s quiet moans and wet coughs. But it was only when she whimpered his name that he managed to control himself.
Numair banished dire warnings and predictions from his mind and instead drew a chair over to the bed. Sitting, he caught a flailing hand in both of his, rubbing his thumb over he knuckles–and watched as her struggles lessened. He knew her inside and out, and while the Healers might know about her particular magic, they knew nothing of her habits and fears; how she rarely slept without her animal companions or him–or both–and slept poorly when she was alone. The lack of company, coupled with delirium and the oppressive heat and enveloping bedclothes which could not sit well with someone who had a fierce hate of confinement in any form, made his love fretful and troubled. He wondered, absently, which Healer had banished Kitten, the young dragonet, from the ward, and how much damage they had suffered in the doing of it; it must be Onua or the Royal children who were looking after her, for no one else could keep the headstrong creature occupied for any length of time. The thought was abstract at best, though, and after a moment his thoughts fixed firmly on Daine once more.
Twice Healers and their assistants entered, stoking the braziers and replacing the cooling bricks with hot ones, packing them in close to Daine to burn the fever out of her. After the first tried to eject the dark-haired mage—and was cursed so fiercely his assistant was sent cowering into a corner—no one interfered with Numair or his unwavering presence
At one point during the night he caught a glimpse of silver from the corner of his eye, and turned to find the chain Daine was never without laying on a small table nearby. Half-hidden by the heavy silver claw, a ring of was silver and copper–representing their two magics–made of sixteen slender bands entwined in an interlocking puzzle lay. It was the betrothal ring he had given her over a year ago and, while she could not wear it on her hand without losing it while shape shifting, she was never without it at her throat. He also remembered the ring was layered with the strongest healing and protection magics that Numair and the jeweler could manage. Whether that would help now against an illness as powerful as the Sweating Sickness meant little–sentimentality was its truest strength now. It could have been the ring or the badger’s claw, or something else entirely that helped, but shortly after he slid the ring onto her left hand and clasped the chain around her neck, Daine’s fever-fueled dreams seemed to ease for a while.
*** The sound of the sea filled the air along with the sharp scent of brine. Daine stood at the water’s edge, gazing into the setting sum, and spoke to the man she knew was behind her. “Look, Numair; isn’t it beautiful?”
“Indeed.” At his tone she turned to her lover with a grin–and was too shocked to scream when the ground fell out from beneath him and he disappeared into the gaping darkness.
Now she did scream, and incoherent sound or horror and grief, lunging forward towards the cliff’s edge–hadn’t they been on the beach?–only to come up short, held fast by stony flesh. She turned and saw the arm around her belonged to one of the rock creatures they had seen in the Divine Realms; in fact, it seemed to be that very place. But she had been the one to fall, hadn’t she?
“I’m sorry, Daine.”
She turned again, shocked, and the arm holding her fast vanished. And yes, there was Kaddar in all his splendor, standing solemn and sad. “Kaddar? What’s wrong?”
“Master Salmalin–they found him at the University. My uncle would take no more chances–I’m sorry, Daine, he was executed at sunset.”
“No–no, he wasn’t, it’s a lie. It was a trick, Kaddar–a simacrulum he hid for that reason. He’s alive!” She knew it, but terror gripped her anyway.
And Kaddar shock his head. “They found the simacrulum as well–it was destroyed. Master Salmalin is dead.”
“No–no…” the words were hardly audible over the rattle of her lungs, but she had at least been coughing up some of the fluid choking her, in between nightmares. The Healers were still solemn and her fever still high as the sunset on the fourth day of her illness, less than a day after his return to her side, but when Baird had checked on her earlier, he had seemed less resigned, and had looked Numair in the eye before nodding once. She was not better, still dangerously ill, but the fact that she had not declined further was both a surprise and a faint hope. It was all that the mage needed to know—if the Healers who were ready to consign Daine into the Black Gods hands now believed she had even the slimmest chance, then Numair knew she would be fine—seeing as she was one of the most stubborn creatures living.
“No!” She fought the blankets fiercely, as she had not for most of the day despite her restless dreams. The pain in her voice had him shaking her awake.
She didn’t actually ‘wake’, just drifted part way to consciousness. He murmured softly, speaking in low tones as he lifted her head and helped her sip at the cool water, trying to replace even a fraction of the fluids she’d sweated out. The water slid past dry, chapped lips and she accepted eagerly for a moment or two, before turning away.
He took her hand again, knowing she would drift back to delirium soon. “It’s alright, magelet, you’re going to be fine.”
A sigh broke from her lips, turning into a cough. When it ended, she murmured: “Numair–you’re dead.”
He pressed a kiss to her knuckles as she sank back into the fever, no one hearing his own sigh.
***…her side ached fiercely from where the hunter’s weapon had grazed her flesh, but she ran on, higher into the mountains, away from the two-leggers and back to her pack. Fear was bitter in her throat as she raced on four legs…
“…shhh, magelet, it’s alright…”
…digging graves with a shovel, one after another for her family, then covering her kin and animal friends with soil, filling the graves with her bare hands after the wooden haft broke. Never weeping, because all the tears were gone, leaving only grief and rage and hate…
“…wake up, Daine, it’s just a dream…”
…power pouring through her, into the glorious scaled creature before her, her magic healing that which had been lost…
…the slimy chill of Chaos’ own hands wrapped around her throat, squeezing, squeezing…
…the taste of grass and oats, the warm wind rising, calling to the herd that followed, racing the wind simply because they could …
…trapped, trapped, locked in a room with no doors, no windows, nothing but white walls surrounding her, caging her in…
“…wake up, darling…that’s right, sweet…”
…the sea breeze carrying the scent of the ocean to the balcony of the Tower, high above the forest with its summer sounds, even as the noise behind her spoke of him approaching from their bedroom…
….Ozorne’s cruel smile as stood before the gates of Corus, the bodies of the dead and dying lay behind him, scattered like so much waste across the battlefield, her friends and allies fallen before his greed; the sound of steel feathers as the Stormwings descended, claws stained with blood…
“…don’t cry, love…”
…whale song filling the air and water, echoing in her very bones…
…the scent of blood in the air…
…controlling her Wild Magic for the first time…
…losing herself, her humanity, in the mind of the pack…
…blood and death and war…
“…it’s alright, magelet…”
…love and life…***
Alanna of Trebond, Pirate’s Swoop and Olau slipped in through the door of her young friend’s sick room, determined to see for herself that Duke Baird was right—that, despite the odds, Daine was winning against the Sweating Sickness.
For all that she was a warrior, Alanna hated war: its’ waste and pointless losses, the greed and madness and darkness that was by turns its cause and result. Yet she accepted war more easily than disease. A battle was fought with men and blades—illness, despite her healing Gift, was a strange, unseen foe; faceless, unknown, and far more indifferent than enemy soldiers could ever be. And in an epidemic…fighting disease was like fighting an army of shadows while treading water.
No matter how hard you fought, you still swallowed water. And usually drowned.
Eleven days since the first case of the Sickness had been noticed in the City; six days since it had struck the Palace. Corus was under quarantine, and she could only thank the Goddess that her own husband and children were safe on the coast as the bodies piled up and the Sickness raged on, sweeping through the population. This bout was not a bad as the last she had witnessed–but that one had been sorcery-brewed and had drained the Healers of the Gifts. Now, though exhausted, they struggled onwards. And as hard as they fought, they still lost nearly half of their patients, especially among the children and the elderly.
Blessed Mother, she was tired. She wanted to be at the Swoop, with its views and scents and sounds; with the man she’d loved since she was barely sixteen and the children they had made.
But she was a knight, who fought for King and Realm against all foes with every weapon available; and right now, it was the Sickness that threatened that which she had sworn to protect, and it was her Gift she must yield in their name. But first, she needed to see her friends, and be sure that the wretched, thrice-damned plague would not steal away this particular life.
The heat was oppressive, but necessary, so she didn’t think to grumble. Daine slept, uneasy, but relatively still, and though pained the Lioness to see the girl as she was, according to Baird, whom Alanna trusted with common sense and a frank truthfulness, Daine should have been at the Black God’s gates by this point. Flushed skin, hollow cheeks and sweat-soaked hair seemed little enough in comparison.
Numair looked as exhausted as the Healers felt, so she was glad to see him sleeping, hunched in his chair hand grasping Daine’s firmly, even in sleep, as if he could anchor her in the realm of the living by that alone. Who knew, maybe he had. Baird had mentioned that the mage had been caring for Daine the past four days, freeing the Healers and assistants to deal with others. Truthfully, it was all he could really do to help both Daine and the rest of the sick. She couldn’t begin to imagine how frustrating it must be to him–the most powerful mage in half the world, unable to do more the most menial assistance during an epidemic.
He had found a way to aid Healers with his Gift, channeling his own magic into theirs to fuel and bolster the Healer’s Gift and spells. Yet, because of the strength and nature of his Gift, doing so for an extended period taxed the Healer to the point of exhaustion. It was useful—but not during an epidemic, when Healers needed their magic for days or weeks on end, and couldn’t afford to lose a single day, even in exchange for stronger spells.
So he remained instead at his lover’s sickbed, nursing a woman the Healers believed to be dying—and likely saving her through sheer force of will.
Though she wished to, she was too tired to smile at the sight they made. Instead, she held her hand above Daine’s chest, using her Gift to examine her friend.
Numair woke to purple fire, opening his eyes to find Alanna’s Gift surrounding her had and Daine’s head and chest. The purple was paler than usual, lilac instead of amethyst, but that was to be expected.
When the fire retreated into its master’s flesh, he demanded; “Well?”
“Awake, are you?”
One side of her mouth kicked up. “Either she’s the most stubborn person I’ve ever met, or you are. Either way, I think she’ll make it.”
He wanted to breathe a sigh of relief—he wanted to gather up Daine and kiss her. He was too tired, too worried, and too close to weeping. The hand in his own was still fiery. “Her fever…”
“Is still high, but she’d winning against the Sickness. I expect her fever to break by nightfall.”
He nodded, holding on to control by the skin of his teeth. He stroked his thumb over the back of Daine’s hand in absent patterns, soothing himself as much as her. “Are you sure?”
“As much as I can be—don’t mistake me, Numair, she can still take a turn for the worst. Keep doing what you’ve been doing; don’t let her take a chill, and try to get some fluids into her. If her fever doesn’t break by tonight, I’ll help her along…”
He nodded, not looking up until the silence stretched out for a full minute. Glancing at Alanna, he noticed her rapt gaze locked on their linked hands. “Alanna?”
She was struck by Numair’s absent tracings, remembering some long ago book she’d read in Myles’ library. But was it any use…?
“Numair, have you ever studied runic magic, by any chance?”
He was baffled, but humored her. They were both tried. “Of course, I mastered it years ago, before I was able to study the Words of Power. Why?”
“Why don’t we use it anymore?”
Why Alanna wanted a lesson in magical history was beyond him, especially as she was an indifferent scholar at the best of times, but he answered anyway. “Runes are used to channel power, the rune dictating what becomes of that power and what form it takes. Runes ‘shape’ magic, rather than it being pre-formed as the Gift is. However, while runic magic is very powerful, it’s also very complex, taking years to master and requiring both the power to form the runes, and then to feed into the spell. Over the centuries the Gift became commonly used because, comparative, it was simple to use and master, as well as straightforward—whatever Gift you have is what magic you are capable of. Runic magic was diluted into magical glyphs, and then even those died out, except for the handful used in wardings and charms. Only scholars and Adepts study even the most basic runes these days.”
“Is there any way for you to use runic magic to help the Healers?”
Numair froze, his eyes dropping back to his hands—and the unconscious movements of his fingers, which had drawn Alanna’s focus. His mind raced at the implication, searching through his knowledge of runes and magic, seeking potentials and pitfalls. He’d never considered it before, but now…
“I can’t use runes to heal—but I can use them to channel and amplify healing by both nature and the Gift.”
Violet and brown eyes met, hope and possibilities shining in both. Exhaustion fell away. “Try it,” Alanna ordered in a whisper.
He had Alanna build the fire higher, not wanting to take the slightest chance of Daine’s catching chill at this stage. When the room was warmed further, he carefully drew the layers of bedclothes down past Daine’s hips, unbuttoning her nightshirt to expose her from navel to throat.
Against her heated skin, Numair drew a series of runic symbols, chanting as he did so in a dead language while he focused his Gift into the forming and holding of the pattern. Left palm, forehead, right palm, navel, and throat soon bore symbols formed of dark blue light—like and yet unlike the fire that marked the Gift—though nothing more than a fingertip had drawn them.
Finally, as Alanna watched avidly, Numair, still speaking in a low chant, etched a series of six runes directly over Daine’s heart–three in blue, two in green, and the central symbol in pearly white light. As the final rune was completed, Numair’s chant closed, and all the runes flared brightly, then faded into a pale shimmer against skin.
Numair sat back, breathing slightly fast as Alanna re-covered Daine. His lover looked a little calmer, and even as he watched, her flush seemed to fade slightly–but it might have been wishful thinking on his part.
The Lioness’ eyes never left Daine as she once more extended her hand, Gift flaring, and sent a bit of her magic through the girl. With the first touch of violet fire, the runes flared and glowed faintly. The knight blinked, but didn’t falter.
After another moment she drew back. “Can that be done to a building, or do the runes have to be laid on a person?”
At the bright, hopeful light in her eyes, Numair smiled, albeit weakly, for the first time in days.
It took less than three hours for the University to gather every mage capable of runic craft in the city. There weren’t many, mostly a handful of scholars and foreign mages, a few priests and one priestess—but they would be enough. Dispatched to every hospice, and make-shift sick ward in Corus, laying runes of healing, health, and magical amplification on each building, and then more specifically on the rooms and bedstead of the most seriously ill, the changes were noticed immediately. Healers found that it took less of their Gift to achieve equal or greater results; those whose fevers were slight or breaking began to noticeably improve. Harailt, Dean of the University, personally warded the Palace. Jon sighed with relief while the Healers foresaw the end of the epidemic on the horizon.
Numair was unaffected by the relief that he and Alanna’s experiment had brought. He slept, deeply, head lying next to Daine’s hip, her hand caught firmly in his own: the fever had broken even as the first runes were being laid.
***The evening breeze carried the scent of the ocean upon it; in the distance that last rays of the sun died in a fiery blaze beyond the Emerald Sea. Daine leaned against the stone balustrade and let her mind wander where it would.
“Deep thoughts, magelet?”
Warmth pressed against her back, arms surrounding her even as the scent of spice and soap engulfed her. On a sigh, she leaned back into her lover’s embrace.
“Not at all.”
They said nothing for a time, content with each others presence and the peaceful night. Eventually Numair stirred, bending to lay warm lips against the skin of her throat. “I love you sweetling.”
She felt a weight tugging at her hand; glancing down, she saw her fair skin against his swarthy forearm. Saw the dull glint of silver and copper on her finger.
Felt him move, drawing her away from the balcony of the Tower, towards their bedroom. Heard his silky voice murmur against the skin of her neck, making her shiver deliciously; “I love you, my magelet. Forever.”***
Daine struggled to wake, weariness dragging at her even as weakness weighed down her limbs. She was confused: why was she so weak? And so tired? There was also none of the familiar presences in the bed, neither Numair’s nor that of her animals. There was only one weight next to her hip, which she assumed was Kitten. And why was her left hand numb?
Frustration lent her the strength to force her eyelids open. Her eyes felt dry; after she’d blinked them clear, she found the familiar sight of the ceiling of the bedroom she shared with Numair. That, at least, was expected.
She was stiff and sore, her muscles both knotted and watery, as if she’d been injured or ill for days. She didn’t remember getting hurt—had, in fact, managed to avoid draining her Wild Magic or getting herself cut, bruised, or broken for months, which was unprecedented. So why?
Despite her stiffness, she managed to turn her head to the left. Her first thought was: ‘That’s why I can’t feel my hand’. Her second—‘that’s not Kitten’.
Her hand was clasped firmly in Numair’s long, tanned fingers, inches from where his dark head lay against the coverlet at her hip. His long, silky hair was unkempt; she frowned at the sight. The last time he’d looked so tired—circles under his eyes, faint lines of stress and worry etched near his mouth, hair untidy—was during the height of the Immortals War. Why…?
He frowned in his sleep. Unhappy with his appearance, she managed to lay her right hand on his hair and stroke gently. Had something gone wrong during his trip? If that was the case, why was he sitting by the bed instead of sleeping in it?
The glint of silver caught her eye; on the hand Numair was cutting the circulation off from her betrothal ring rested, though more loosely than it should. The sight brought back memories of a misty dream—and with it came others, nightmares and odd dreams which blended memory and fantasy. Dreams of heat and pain and being trapped in a dark, dry hell, fighting to reach Numair’s voice: that warm, gentle tenor which had cut through the nightmares, replacing images of Ozorne and Chaos and Snowsdale and war with dreams of the sea and the Tower and soft, sweet nights in her love’s arms.
Now she frowned in confusion, trying to separate dream from reality, unaware of murmuring: “Numair?”
As quietly as she spoke, as deeply as he slept, Numair woke instantly, raising his head and rubbing sleep from his eyes, though he never released her hand.
Numair stretched, feeling the release of vertebrae popping, easing the strain placed on his back by sleeping in such an awkward position. Out of habit, he glanced at Daine, to reassure himself she was there and alive, before leaning back in his chair.
Where he froze, his eyes leaping back to meet her stormy blue eyes, miraculously free of fever, clouded only by confusion and not illness.
“Daine?” He reached out with his free hand and stroked her cheek—cool and pale, as it had been for two days while she slept deeply, without delirium or hallucinations. “You’re back, Mithros bless.”
She frowned harder. “You’re the one was on a trip; I didn’t go anywhere…did I?”
He shifted to sit on the bed where his head had rested. Leaning forwards to place a kiss on her forehead, his lips lingering on her blessedly cool skin, he murmured in response. “Yes, sweetling—far away, where I couldn’t follow.”
She lifted a hand to his face, though her fingers shook slightly. Nudging him back, blue eyes met black. Her brow furrowed. “You look so tired.” She touched the creases by his eye. “And you’re talking in riddles—you know I hate that.
There was a hint of her usual pert, no-nonsense tone in the weak voice, bringing a smile to his lips. He caught her fingers and kissed them. “What do you remember?”
“Dreams—strange dreams—and nightmares. I couldn’t get away, but you made the nightmares go away. Your voice…I could hear you in my dreams.”
“You were sick, magelet, very sick. The Healers were sure you were going to die.”
There was anger in his voice, and a lingering pain. “I’m sure that assumption went over well with you,” she smiled even as she struggled to think, to understand what could have made her so ill…
…remembered the king’s solemn announcement of the Sweating Sickness in the Lower City, the panic it caused in the Palace; remembered feeling hot and dizzy during her chores, Onua taking one look at her and paling, before hustling her to the Healers.
“I–I had the Sweating Sickness,” she managed.
She saw his eyes cloud before he closed them, the creases in his face deepening. “Yes, sweetling.”
“Well, I suppose that explains how you look.”
His eyes flew open again, gazing incredulously at her face before a strangled laugh slipped out. His lips curved slightly and he leaned down to rest his forehead against hers. “Oh, my magelet, I love you.”
They stayed like that for long minutes, absorbing each other’s presence. Numair struggled with the fact that she was here—awake, alive, and whole. Despite the breaking of the fever, until she’d woken, smiled, touched him in return, he’d been waiting, uncertain if the Black God wouldn’t still snatch her from him.
Daine sorted through her fever nightmares—places where she’d been trapped, where Ozorne had won, Numair had died in truth, where Tortall had been overrun. She recalled the dreams as well, happy memories of her friends, of Numair; seeing her Ma and Da, alive and happy, learning to use her Wild Magic, loving Numair.
There were other dreams that were just that—dreams, not memory. Always about Numair, they were hazy, full of things that had not been…yet.
She recalled the path her thoughts had tread with increasing regularity in the weeks—months—before her illness. Thought of how closely her dreams had followed that path, even with her mind clouded with fever.
Numair brushed his lips gently against hers before leaning back slightly. She arched an eyebrow–a gesture she had learned from him. “I can’t feel my hand, you know.”
He blinked, then stared at her. She tried to twitch her fingers within his, drawing his gaze. With a laugh, he released her, then took the hand in both of his to rub away the pins and needles that heralded the return of sensation.
“Numair…I want to get married. At Midsummer.”
The fingers around hers tightened, dark eyes glittering as they locked with hers. “Daine…”
A smile touched her lips, still pale and chapped from fever. “I want to marry you, Numair.”
“I know, sweetling.” He linked their fingers together, rubbed his thumb over her ring. “And we will…but I promised to give you as long as you need; we don’t need to rush into…”
“Do you not want to—?”
A tender, fierce kiss silenced her hesitant question. When they parted, his velvety eyes were stern.
“You are much more intelligent than that, sweetling.” He kissed her again, gently. “I…” now he was hesitant, “I just need to know if you’re sure this is what you want—that you aren’t’ reacting, rushing, because of the scare of the Sickness.”
She scowled at him. “Do I look scared?” He met her eyes examined them for a long moment before shaking his head slowly. “Exactly. We haven’t rushed into anything, and I’m not about to tangle things up now by jumping the post.”
She squeezed his hand and lifted her free one to his hair, tangling her fingers in the loose strands. “I’ve been thinking about this, for a while actually, since things have been quiet lately—quieter, in any case. And when Jon sent you away again—I started thinking a lot more; about us, and how far we’ve come—how far we can go. About how you’re…everything.” Her own blue eyes shone as they bore into his, burning brightly with determination and love. “You’re just everything to me. The Sickness, it just proved that. I’d get lost in dreams—nightmares of war and death and blood—and then I’d hear your voice, and the nightmare’d be gone, and I’d dream about the Tower, or the ocean, or you. Every time I was trapped, I’d hear you, and be freed.”
“I’m proud of Ma’s name—of being called Sarrasri. Folk may think it’s an insult, but I don’t. But I was born to the name Sarrasri—I don’t want to die bearing it.”
“I don’t plan on dying for a long time, Numair. I’ve survived Gallan winters, Snowsdale, bandits more than I care to count, a wild Gift and now the Sweating Sickness; we’ve survived raiders, crazed nobles, Carthak, a crazed emperor, the Immortals, war—not to mention the gods and the Divine Realms. I figure that we’ve not only entitled to some peace—not too much, though, or we’d get fair bored—but to a long, long, long time together. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of the gods and the Realms to last me fifty years—I’m not in any hurry to go back, certainly not permanently. And those fifty years—minimum—I want to spend as Daine Salmalin, not Daine Sarrasri.” She bit her lip. “But what about you? What do you want?”
He brought her hand to his lips. “I certainly would rather not leave this Realm for a great many years as well. I want a long time with you, Daine; as many years as we can manage, and more beside. Years spent traveling and exploring and together at the Tower. I want a family with you. And I would have you as my wife instead of my betrothed, whenever you’re ready.”
“I don’t think I’m ready for children yet—but when I am, I’ll tell you.”
And he laughed. “Oh, magelet, I have no doubt—you are not one to be silent, or to defer to other’s wishes, a fact of which I have daily proof.”
“And what does that mean?”
Once again he kissed her–longer, lingering. “It means that you will never be meek or mild or demure—and that you’re perfect.”
“Now you’re delirious.”
But Numair only smiled and kissed her fingers. “Well, my magelet? Will you do me the honor of wedding my poor, delirious self on Midsummer’s Day?”
So pale, weak-limbed, weary from the lingering effects of a near-fatal fever, Daine pulled herself upright with Numair’s aid and kissed the corner of his mouth. Smiled.
“If you’re very, very good.”
***italic*** = dream